For lack of a better description, the latest project by Cleveland-based musician Bobby Selvaggio is a melding of textures between the saxophonist's jazz quartet and a string quintet consisting of two violins, two violas, and cello. It's a heady assignment that many have tried over the years. In fact, there have been more failures in this genre than successes. A highpoint of this type of fusion has always been The October Suite a 1966 Impulse date featuring pianist Steve Kuhn and arrangements on one side for strings by the great Gary McFarland. In a broader context, Claus Ogerman's Gate of Dreams and Cityscape are models for this type of project, the pair of sides featuring Michael Brecker.
For Selvaggio's part, let it be said that he largely succeeds at providing what he calls a "sonic adventure for the listener." The strings never feel adjunct, but indeed serve a vital role in fleshing out the textures of these unique compositions. The opening "Vanishing Thoughts" is simply stunning, with jabbing piano chords ushering in a soaring unison line by Bobby's alto and his wife Chelsea's wordless vocals. String tremolos move in and out between sections as Selvaggio's alto statement slowly unfolds. There's a quaintness to it all not unlike the work of Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone.
By contrast, the title track speaks first via a tone row from Bobby's alto as string chords punctuate the silence. Suddenly, synthesized sounds take things to a whole other place as a funky backbeat buoys further development of the theme. Such exploration is at the heart of Selvaggio's writing here, even if the electronics sound somewhat kitschy. The three movements of "Fading Rose" cover a good deal of ground compositionally as well as when it comes to Bobby's own saxophone playing. At times warm and melodic, he can also dip into tonal manipulations akin to Sam Rivers or Ornette Coleman. The third movement is especially adventuresome, getting additional bang for the buck from the ethnic drumming of Jamey Haddad.
"House on a Hill" opens with a snippet of what sounds like a record needle being dropped on a piece of vinyl. What evolves is another euphoric melody supported by wordless vocals. "Love Within" treads on similar ground, its waltz tempo and cheery attitude making for an easy listen. Like "Vanishing Thoughts" the up tempo "Proteanism" is a tour de force in terms of compositional form, beauty of melodic lines, and evidence of Selvaggio's strengths as an improviser. His soprano horn sounds especially strong, reeling off phrases as the strings punctuate with their own riffs.
Never too coy for its own good, Quantum Man makes a strong case for the validity of this type of work. Don't expect hot solos over a swinging beat, because they are not to be found here. However, if your tastes lie somewhere between contemporary classical and improvised music, there's plenty of nourishment here ripe for the taking.
Vanishing Thoughts; Quantum Man; Fading Rose (in three movements); House on
a Hill; Proteanism; Love Within; Up is Down
Bobby Selvaggio: alto and soprano sax, alto clarinet, voice box effects pedal,
keyboard; Theron Brown: piano & keyboards; Dustin May: drums; Dan Pappalardo:
bass; Jamey Haddad: percussion; Chelsea Selvaggio: voice; Chiara Stauffer: 1st
violin; Amber Dimoff: 2nd violin; Andrea Belding Elson: 1st viola; Christina
Spackey: 2nd viola; Trevor Kazarian: cello
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